The Sunday Magazine

Why your recycling may not actually get recycled

Most of us dutifully set out our blue boxes in the belief that some of the waste we generate will be put to good use. The truth is that most of it piles up in landfills, is incinerated or ends up in a floating mound of plastic in the ocean, says Diane Saxe, an environmental lawyer whose recent job as Ontario’s environmental commissioner was just eliminated.
Recycling bins are pictured on a residential street in Ottawa, Aug. 17, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

It seems inevitable that environmental policies would be contentious in a country with a large oil and gas sector, along with other forms of natural resource extraction.

But one environmental program that just about every Canadian seems to buy into is recycling.

Given that Canadians produce close to a tonne of waste per capita every year, it's a salve to the conscience to think that we can put some of our waste into a blue bin, and it will be transformed into something useful instead of being dumped in a landfill.

We in Canada drive the worst, most polluting cars on the planet, and people think that's okay because they put something in the blue box.- Dianne Saxe, former environmental commissioner of Ontario

The reality is not so reassuring. In Canada, for example, only nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled. Mountains of material collected in blue bins is piling up in landfills, being incinerated, or adding to the swirling islands of plastic flotsam that are choking oceans and killing wildlife. According to some experts, recycling is in crisis.

Dianne Saxe is an environmental lawyer who served as the environmental commissioner of Ontario from 2015 until this year when the position was eliminated.

In 2016, she authored a report called Beyond the Blue Box: Ontario's Fresh Start on Waste Diversion and the Circular Economy.

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In a conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright, she detailed some of the reasons behind the state of recycling today.

For one thing, she explained, a lot of the plastic we put into blue bins is not easily recyclable or not recyclable at all because of increasingly complex mixes of material in plastic packaging. Canadians also put a lot of waste in their blue bins that belongs either in their garbage or organics bins.

B.C.'s contamination rate for recyclable materials is one of the lowest in the country. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

According to Saxe, upwards of 25 per cent of the waste put in recycling bins is also rendered non-recyclable by contamination either by food waste or other materials. For example, paper that's covered in food residue or that has shards of glass embedded in it, cannot be recycled.

Exacerbating the problem of contamination of recycling is single-stream recycling, in which all recyclable waste is put into one bin instead of forcing households to sort recycling into different bins. It's a trade-off: Single-stream recycling has increased the amount of stuff people put into recycling, but it means less of that stuff can actually be recycled.

Saxe also called out business and industry the sector that produces all that packaging waste in the first place for not taking responsibility for the waste it produces, shifting the costs instead to municipalities.

This plague of buying things, using them for a little while and then throwing them out — it's just a bad habit.- Dianne Saxe

Ultimately, Saxe argued, a cultural shift is needed to curtail consumption and reject unnecessary packaging in the first place and to stop seeing recycling as an environmental silver bullet.

"If people feel morally justified in buying a plastic water bottle because they're going to throw it in the blue bin, that is not a good thing," Saxe said. "It would be much better for them not to buy the bottled water, to just buy a permanent bottle and fill it up at the tap, which would also be cheaper for them."

"In fact, there have been some really interesting studies that show that many people feel that as long as they throw something in the blue box, they've done their bit for the environment. We in Canada drive the worst, most polluting cars on the planet, and people think that's okay because they put something in the blue box," said Saxe.

"The blue box is useful, it's important, but it's small. The big things are driving, flying, the way we heat and eating meat."

"This plague of buying things, using them for a little while and then throwing them out it's just a bad habit," Saxe said.

"We don't have to do it that way. We can have much better lives differently."

Click "listen" above to hear the interview.